Wednesday Wisdom: Washington Wine
Though famous for their rain and coffee, Washington has become the second-largest wine producing state in the United States, only behind California. German and Italian immigrants planted wine grapes in the 1860’s, but it wasn’t until a century later that winemaking took off. Since 1960, over 900 wineries have opened in Washington with over 50,000 acres of vineyards. Washington is interesting because while they have 50,000+ acres of vineyards, there are wineries that are separate from the vineyard and vineyards that sell grapes to multiple wineries. This is especially true for the wineries on the western side of the state where the amount of rain makes growing grapes difficult.
When they first came on the scene, Washington was well known for their cabernet sauvignons and their merlots. This came as a surprise to people who were hoping to receive white grapes, as oppose to the red. While they obviously produced white wine, it was their cabernet sauvignon and merlot that were really their prized possessions. However, that changed when riesling entered the picture. The high altitudes allow riesling to have high acidity and the results are something else. Syrahs produced in Washington also received some notoriety. Amongst the wines already mentioned, Washington also produces chardonnay, pinot grigio, gewürztraminer, sauvignon blanc, and sparkling wines.
Some may make the assumption that because Washington is such a rainy state, producing wine is not the easiest feat. While that is certainly true for the western side of the state, near Seattle and west of the Cascade mountains, the eastern side of the state is surprisingly good for growing conditions. It’s much more dry and gets more sun. This provides for much more optimal growing conditions. And with cooler evenings, it allows the grapes to preserve their acidity. The biggest wine producing regions in Washington are Columbia Valley and Puget Sound. Even within Columbia Valley, there is smaller wine producing areas, like Walla Walla Valley.
One of the most recognized wineries to come out of Washington is Chateau Ste. Michelle. Referred to by some as the “godmother” of the Washington wine scene, it is the largest winery in Washington and the seventh largest in the United States. They introduced their wines in 1967 (celebrating their 50th anniversary this year) as Ste. Michelle Vitners and changed their name to Chateau Ste. Michelle ten years later. During the late 1990’s, they had become so large that they helped the Washington State wine scene become what they are today. They make their reds and whites in two different parts of the state and sell well over 2 million cases of wine each year.
Washington wine is nothing to balk at. It’s become so big and such a part of the state that Washington State University even offers Winemaking (Viticulture and Enology) as a major. So start east and make your way west, and enjoy all the wine that Washington has to offer.